In W. Somerset Maugham’s coming-of-age novel, Of Human Bondage, Philip, the young protagonist, is in conversation with Mildred, a young artist with whom he’s fallen in love. They speak briefly of a suicide that has affected the heartbroken Philip. Mildred, breezy as she is, says, “They’re a funny lot, suicides. […] Thing I’ve always noticed, people don’t commit suicide for love, as you’d expect, that’s just a fancy of novelists; they commit suicide because they haven’t got any money.”
Philip responds dryly, “I suppose money’s more important than love.”
Maugham is right in that life isn’t often the melodrama we’d like it to be, but often at the root of an existential dilemma is an ethical quandary. As the recent litigation and corresponding suicide of anti-SOPA activist, Harvard research fellow and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz suggests, the usually distinct line between the existential and the ethical takes on a tenebrous gray shade when ‘the digital’ gets thrown into the mix. And, as we’re in the midst of a complex ‘technological milieu’—a term coined by French philosopher Jacques Ellul. In his work, The Technological Society, this graying is far from idiosyncratic. Indeed, Ellul considers technology, and its correspondent artifacts (such as journal articles preserved in a digital library), in definitively martial terms: “Today’s war is a total war… It subjects everyone to the same way of life, puts everyone on a level with everyone else, and threatens everyone with the same death.” In other words, for questions of ethics in a digital age, there’s more at stake than money and love; freedom itself is on the line.
With this in mind, let’s examine the case of Aaron Swartz. He was found dead on Jan. 11, 2013 in his Brooklyn apartment. The New York City chief medical examiner ruled his death a suicide by hanging. Swartz was on the young end of 26, and he was found dead just a few days after the two-year anniversary of his federal arrest in January 2011 for his systematic (and perhaps, symbolic) downloading of articles from JSTOR, the navigable digital library that contains millions of academic articles from hundreds of disciplines. He was charged in 2011 under the Computer Fraud and Abuse act of 1986 with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer, all in connection with the JSTOR activity, which was committed in an out-of-the-way room Swartz accessed at MIT.
The indictment against Swartz describes what sounds like a sub-plot stolen from a Hackers spin-off. According to the indictment, Swartz allegedly entered the basement of a building at MIT, where he had previously stored and hidden a laptop and external hard drive. He used the laptop to connect to MIT’s network and run a script (a not-so-subtly named ‘keepgrabbing.py’) to rapidly download articles from JSTOR that were previously kept behind a pay wall. According to the indictment, Swartz acquired around 4.8 million articles, which MIT valued at $50,000. Swartz was arrested two hours after he left MIT. After pleading not guilty, he was released on a $100,000 unsecured bail.
JSTOR chose not to pursue litigation against Swartz, but MIT was more persistent, and eighteen months of negotiation ensued between Swartz’s defense and the prosecution, with the latter being fueled by MIT to push for harder sentencing. According to prosecuting U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, “If convicted on these charges, Swartz faces up to 35 years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, restitution, forfeiture and a fine of up to $1 million.”
Negotiations came to a head at the beginning of January 2013. Swartz’s attorney, Marty Weinberg, drafted a plea bargain in which Swartz would not need to serve time. And though JSTOR agreed, MIT continued to pursue litigation. Elliot Peters, who took over Swartz’s case for Weinberg at the end of 2012, was ultimately unable to persuade the prosecution in their demand for a Swartz’s guilty plea, which would have branded Swartz as a felon and held him for at least six months in prison, and up to 35 years.
And then, on January 9, JSTOR announced a major expansion of their ‘Register & Read’ program which would provide free limited access to 4.5 million JSTOR articles from 1,200 different journals—a dash of salt in Swartz’s festered wound.
Those close to Swartz speculated that he struggled with depression, and as the pressures of litigation and sentencing continued to darken, undoubtedly his emotional burden intensified. It’s cheap to speculate about the ‘cause of suicide’ in general or Swartz’s reasons in particular, but within the greater digital (or technological) context, Swartz’s death is an unfortunate and unnecessary human attrition suffered in the increasingly volatile world of information. In turn, this suggests that the dimensions of the digital sphere—and its consonant ethical dynamic—are not as abstract as we would like them to be. That is, Mildred and Philip, when it comes to suicide, maybe money and love aren’t all there is.
Swartz’s attempt to free information from behind the pay walls at JSTOR and MIT was incendiary, insofar as he could have merely let things carry on ‘as usual,’ but in the spirit of open access—a digital virtue Swartz worked tirelessly to cultivate—his attempt to free information was an action with the clear intention to keep public what Swartz believed should be public. If the University, despite having specific culprits in mind, imbues its constituents (students, faculty, and staff) with the idea that its use of information be for the betterment of society, is it therefore right that the information compiled within the institutional walls be restricted (i.e.: by a pay wall)? Furthermore, if the pay wall is the restrictive agent, where is the money going? The writers aren’t getting it, and in most cases, neither are the journals. If keepgrabbing.py had an ethical motivation, that public information be kept public is the subject you’d find at its core.
But now we’ve entered some sticky territory. The prosecutors said Swartz was stealing from MIT, but Swartz and the myriad individuals and organizations supporting him were simply making free what he believed was—and is—meant to be free. And this word, free, is what’s at the core of our ethical conversation. Information, in our digital age, is the product of individuals, so if this information is restricted, it would seem that the individual is restricted, as well. But in some cases, the irony here, and what seemed to irk Swartz, is that the judgments handed down by the regulators, or restrictors, likewise affect the regulators themselves.
Here we return to Ellul’s martial language. He speaks of a war that subjects everyone. This means the subjected (Swartz) and the subjectors (MIT/prosecution). Weighed against isolated incidents like this, Ellul’s take on the situation, and choice of language, might seem overblown, or pretentious at best. But within the greater war—a cold one, of technological progress and information—our greatest enemy, both literally and metaphysically, is us. This, the convolution of ethical clarity, and in Swartz’s case, the myopic vision of the prosecution.
The key to understanding the ‘right’ path in a situation like this is less a question of applying retrospective ethical methodologies and, instead, understanding what exactly is our relationship with technology, and why this relationship with technology so lends itself to such aggressive infighting. According to Ellul, technique is the background geometry that determines all technological evolution. We are subject to this evolutionary process, adhering ourselves to the increasingly efficient mechanisms of technique. We’re now in an age where phrases like ‘digital copyright,’ ‘pay wall protection,’ and ‘computer fraud’ are sensible and viable concepts, likewise affecting our transmission and receipt of information; that is, the nature of how we communicate, and tangentially, how we related to one another. Our supposed concept of freedom has been incorporated by technique, such that our literal civic freedom can be threatened if we attempt to ‘right’ things, as Swartz did.
The subjectors, in this case, have come down with a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome. The technological milieu, as Ellul calls it, modifies the very essence of humankind, and to adjust for this change, “Man creates for himself a new religion of a rational and technical order to justify his work and be justified in it.” People like Swartz, in other words, are fighting to adjust the direction of technique, whereas the prosecution (in Swartz’s case, anyway) is simply going with the flow. But ultimately what connects all of us is the fact that we’re caught in the current of technological ‘progress.’ It is not simply that we are what we click, but that we are ever more becoming what we click.
“And when the system isn’t working, it doesn’t make sense to just yell at the people in it — any more than you’d try to fix a machine by yelling at the gears. True, sometimes you have the wrong gears and need to replace them, but more often you’re just using them in the wrong way. When there’s a problem, you shouldn’t get angry with the gears — you should fix the machine.”
Swartz is speaking of the dehumanizing aspects of technique here, and what might be done to salvage freedom in the face of increased ‘mechanization.’ In this case, some argue that the ‘machine’—the machine of history, and the machine made by history—is the problem. Indeed, in The Technological Society, it’s easy to pick up shades of that, but Ellul’s solution in face of this, is that, “We must look at it dialectically, and say that man is indeed determined, but that it is open to him to overcome necessity, and that this act is freedom. Freedom is not static, but dynamic; not a vested interest, but a prize continually to be won.” Freedom, much like technique, is an evolving effort, and a cogent ethical conversation cannot be had without this dynamism in mind.
To Somerset Maugham’s precocious Philip and Mildred, I say that freedom is more important than both money and love. For Swartz, the ethical question therefore was—and is—one of freedom, but at what cost?